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The Radicals were a loose parliamentary political grouping in Great Britain and Ireland in the early to mid-19th century, who drew on earlier ideas of radicalism and helped to transform the Whigs into the Liberal Party.
The Radical movement arose in the late 18th century to support parliamentary reform, with additional aims including lower taxes and the abolition of sinecures. Working class and middle class "Popular radicals" agitated to demand the right to vote and assert other rights including freedom of the press and relief from economic distress, while "Philosophic radicals" strongly supported parliamentary reform, but were generally hostile to the arguments and tactics of the "popular radicals". The term “Radical” itself, however, as opposed to “reformer” or “radical reformer”, only emerged in 1819, during the upsurge of protest following the successful conclusion of the Napoleonic War.
Radicals and the Great Reform Act
Radicals inside and outside Parliament were divided over the merits of the Whig Reform Act 1832. Some continued to press for the ballot and universal suffrage, but the majority (as mobilised in unions like the Birmingham Political Union) saw abolition of the rotten boroughs as a major step towards the destruction of what they called "Old Corruption" or "The Thing": "In consequence of the boroughs, all our institutions are partial, oppressive, and aristocratic. We have an aristocratic church, an aristocratic bar, an aristocratic game-code, aristocratic taxation....all is privilege".
The 1832 parliament elected on the new franchise – which raised the percentage of the adult population eligible to vote from some 3% to 6% – contained some fifty or sixty Radicals, a number shortly doubled in the 1835 election, leading many to envisage a House of Commons eventually divided between Radicals on the one side and Conservatives (Tories and Whigs) on the other.
But in fact the Radicals failed either to take over an existing party, or to create a new, third force. There were three main reasons. The first was the continuing strength of Whig electoral power in the half-century following the 1832 Act. The latter had expressly been designed to preserve Whig landlord influence in the counties and the remaining small borough – one reason a radical like Henry Hetherington condemned the bill as "an invitation to the shopocrats of the enfranchised towns to join the Whiggocrats of the country". Whigs were also able to profit in two-member constituencies from electoral pacts made with a more reforming candidate.
Secondly, there was the wide body of reforming opinion inside (and outside) Parliament concerned with other, unrelated issues, including international liberalism, anti-slavery, educational and temperance reform, non-conformist disabilities.
But thirdly, the Radicals were always more a body of opinion than a structured force. They lacked any party organisation, formal leadership, or unified ideology. Instead, humanitarian Radicals opposed philosophic Radicals over the Factory Acts; political Radicals seeking a slimmed-down executive opposed Benthamite interventionists; universal suffrage men competed for time and resources with free traders – the Manchester men.
By 1859, the Radicals had come to together with the Whigs and the anti-protectionist Tory Peelites to form the Liberal Party, though with the New Radicalism of figures like Joseph Chamberlain they continued to have a distinctive political influence into the closing years of the nineteenth century.
Continuing agitation and reform
Following the First Reform Act, popular demand for wider suffrage was taken up by the mainly working-class movement, Chartism. Meanwhile Radical leaders like Richard Cobden and John Bright in the middle class Anti-Corn Law League emerged to oppose the existing duties on imported grain which helped farmers and landowners by raising the price of food but which harmed consumers and manufacturers. After the success of the League on the one hand, and the failure of Chartist mass demonstrations and petitions in 1848 to sway parliament on the other, demand for suffrage and parliamentary reform slowly re-emerged through the parliamentary radicals.
By 1864, with agitation from John Bright and the Reform League, the Liberal prime minister Earl Russell introduced a modest bill which was defeated by both Tories and reform Liberals, forcing the government to resign. A Conservative minority government led by the Earl of Derby and Benjamin Disraeli took office and introduced the Reform Act 1867 – which almost doubled the electorate, giving many working men the vote – in a somewhat opportunistic party fashion.
Further Radical pressure led to the secret ballot (1872) and the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act of 1885, followed by a Third Reform Act. Progressive liberals like John Morley continued to value radicalism as a bridge between the classes, a common goal; but with the rise of the Labour Party, and the gradual achievement of the majority of the original Radical goals, Parliamentary Radicalism ceased to function as a political force in the early twentieth century.
- Felix Holt, the Radical (1866) a social novel written by George Eliot, offered a positive view of an idealistic and well-educated committed Radical.
- Anthony Trollope offered a more shaded view in his outline for The Way We Live Now (1875), describing his anti-hero as “A scapegrace. Has glimmerings of Radical policy for the good of the people”.
- The Difference Engine, an alternative history novel, which includes the fictional Industrial Radical Party.
- E. J Evans, Parliamentary Reform, c1770-1918 (Harlow 2000) p. 10 and p. 98
- Élie Halévy, The Liberal Awakening (London 1961) p. 67-8
- Élie Halévy, The Triumph of Reform (London 1961) p. 25-7
- J. Wade, 1831, quoted in M. Dorothy George, Hogarth to Cruikshank (London 1967) p. 169
- Élie Halévy, The Triumph of Reform (London 1961) p. 27-9
- Élie Halévy, The Triumph of Reform (London 1961) p. 65-6 and p. 195
- H. J. Hanham, The Reformed Electoral System in Great Britain (London 1968) p. 12–15 and p. 31
- Quoted in E. J. Evans, Parliamentary Reform, c1770–1918 (Harlow 2000) p. 101.
- E. J. Evans, Parliamentary Reform, c1770–1918 (Harlow 2000) p. 71.
- E. J. Evans, Parliamentary Reform, c1770–1918 (Harlow 2000) p. 45
- M. L. Henry, "Radicals", in S. H. Steinberg ed., A New Dictionary of British History (London 1963) p. 300
- Élie Halévy, The Triumph of Reform (London 1961) p. 195–6.
- G. M. Trevelyan, British History in the Nineteenth Century (London 1922) p. 383.
- E. J. Evans, Parliamentary Reform, c1770–1918 (Harlow 2000) pp. 37, 46.
- H. J. Hanham, The Reformed Electoral System in Great Britain (London 1968) pp. 4, 11.
- E. J. Evans, Parliamentary Reform, c1770–1918 (Harlow 2000) pp. 63, 67
- Vincent, John (1969). "John Morley". History. 54: 316.
- M. L. Henry, "Radicals", in S. H. Steinberg ed., A New Dictionary of British History (London 1963) p. 300.
- I. Ousby ed. The Cambridge Guide to literature in English (Cambridge 1995) p. 327
- M. Sadleir, Anthony Trollope (London 1945) p. 422
- Harris, William (1885). The History of the Radical Party in Parliament. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co.
- D. Worrall, Radical Culture (Harvester 1992)